FORTVILLE — The couple was arguing, or so it seemed. He was standing near the window of a silver pick-up truck, and her shouts could be heard from the driver’s seat.
“Sir, why don’t you step back; I’ll handle this,” Lt. Patrick Bratton with Fortville Police Department called out in a calm but commanding voice, standing from near the bed of the truck. “Please step back, sir. Step back!”
The door of the truck swung open, and when the woman hopped out and pointed in Bratton’s direction, it was a good thing she was only on video.
But these are situations cops face every day, and the choices they make in the seconds that follow an altercation are essential, they said. This week, members of the Fortville Police Department had a chance to practice handling those high-pressure scenarios from the safety of the department while conducting weapons training using a firearms simulator.
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The device is an interactive computer program that uses videos and sensors to put officers in real-world crime scenarios while tracking their responses. From traffic stops to domestic disputes and robberies, the plots played out by the program are ones officers might encounter on their patrols. The program gives them a safe place to practice, ask questions and make the mistakes they can’t make on the road without risking theirs and others’ safety, Bratton said.
“This is the time for them to understand the reality,” he said. “You may never run into these scenarios for the rest of your life, or you could run into one as soon as you leave this training room.
“That’s why we have training,” he said. “We don’t want them to make mistakes, but this is the time to do it.”
The firearms simulator is essentially a projector, screen and library of interactive videos, police said. Each trainee is given a utility belt equipped with plastic versions of the weapons they carry, and the instructor selects one of the nearly 800 scenario videos to begin the exercise.
As the scene plays out in front of them on screen — the roles of average citizens, potential criminals and those in need of assistance are portrayed by actors — the officer must react to what unfolds.
Some of the videos place the officer in circumstances that would require them to use their weapon. As part of the training with the simulator, the officer pulls from their holster a plastic gun equipped with sensors. If the trigger of the plastic weapon is pulled, the firearms simulator uses lasers to track the trajectory of the shot and tells the officer if they have hit or missed the target.
The instructor has full control of the narrative of the video and can alter the outcome based on the officer’s actions: will the officer calm the situation or be put in position where lethal force is required; will the actor comply with the officers’ commands or pull a gun and fire?
Ultimately, the simulator trains the officer to make quick and proper decisions based on the situation presented, Fortville Chief Bill Knauer said. It reminds the officer of the importance of vigilance and affords them a chance to practice in chaotic situations, he said.
The route the officer chooses to take then becomes a point of discussion between them and the instructors based on what they did well and what they could have done differently.
Some of the simulator’s more dangerous scenarios hit close to home for the Fortville department, officers said: The videos are similar to the recordings of Fortville police Patrolman Matt Fox’s in-car camera from the night in 2012 when he was shot multiple times during a traffic stop.
That night, Fox, who survived, did all the right things, Bratton said Fox had called for backup, had his gun out, ready and waiting; but the suspect opened fire before Fox could even put the car in park.
The shooting serves as an example for why officers need to be prepared for any situation at any time, Bratton said. The outcome won’t always be what officers hope for, but they’ll have the best chance of making it home safe if they’ve thought through the scenarios beforehand, he said.
Training session like the ones conducted this week aid in that preparation.
The police department shelled out about $1,000 to rent the firearm simulator from a company called Indiana Simulator Systems, Knauer said. All the department’s officers were required to run through the program, and the hours of participation will count toward their state-required annual training hours. Officers from the New Palestine and Ingalls police departments joined in the training as well.
Rob Myers owns and operates Portland-based Indiana Simulator Systems. Since opening the business in February, he and his business partner, Mark Heath, have visited about 20 police departments across Indiana and into neighboring states.
Their program gives departments the flexibility to apply their own protocols to the scenario, Myers said.
Videos uploaded into the simulator lend themselves to nearly any type of weapons training, including police, military and civilian scenarios, Myers said. When police departments arrange to bring the simulator to their town, Myers encourages them to invite the public to participate, too.
When visiting different areas, Myers said he suggests the department offer the town’s residents a chance to practice with the simulator, and he rented the device to several departments to use at their citizen’s academies. In addition to the police department, members of the Hancock County Prosecutor’s Office, Fortville Police Commission were invited to take turns on the simulator.
Those opportunities give the public a greater appreciation for the officers serving their community, Myers said.
“I always say, ‘Let the ministers, the pastors and the mayor come in and see what it’s like to be a police officer in this day and age,” he said.